After the overwhelming experience of these past couple of days there is so much to say. Even a first-timer like me becomes quickly aware that Santa Fe is no ordinary place. It’s not just the global reputation of this Folk Art Market. There’s something else about this place – the vistas, the sky, the quality here of light and wind. Santa Fe engulfs even a fleeting visitor, with its memories and ancient wisdom.
I am told that the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market is the largest in the world, that the sales turnover here is fantastic. I hear impressive numbers of participating artisans, countries and visitors. I learn that artisans return home after two days of sales with money in their pockets that corresponds to months or years of earnings at home – $15,000 on the average last year. Wow! The statistics can go on – and they should. We live in a world where things measured in numbers command the most notice. Yet these past hours make me wonder whether the impressive statistics really tell the full story, or truly reflect the value of this Market. But if not numbers, what then is the true measure of the Folk Art Market? Let me attempt an answer.
Numbers do not tell us that, perhaps for the first time anywhere in the world, the Santa Fe Market seems to deliver a genuine and lasting status for the invited folk artist/artisan/craftsperson – call her what you will, the labels are unimportant. So many of us strive toward this goal but we seldom accomplish it. You seem to have succeeded, and I hope to learn how. I have noticed over these couple of days that at Santa Fe the artisans are the VIPs. They are truly at the center of everything, not as mere beneficiaries but as celebrities. Your planning seems to begin at where they are and what they need, seen from their perspective. Folk artists here are not fitted into someone else’s grand scheme. They are the scheme. The ‘beneficiaries’ are the rest of us. Here’s some of the evidence I have of this:
An artisan from Bengal has an infant daughter who isn’t eating. The organizers rush around to find the right kind of rice for her, the right cooking utensil. The radio reports that village artists in Latin America were worried that visa negotiations at the US Embassy would challenge their levels of literacy and exposure — so Santa Fe provided mentoring to guide them through the complexities of forms, questions and documents. A group from Peru was stranded on the highway to Lima — another emergency outreach got them safely to the Market. Artisans from India last year discovered that their cargo had missed the flight and could not possibly arrive in time. A Market friend from Austin overheard their plight. He intervened by routing the consignment to his booth at the Los Angeles Gift Fair, averting disaster. Santa Fe bankers have been hugged by artisans, who can’t believe that at a bank, of all places, they can be served with such efficient courtesy. No end-of-the-line treatment, no kick-backs, no short change.
An artist from Africa said yesterday “These are the four days of the year when I am completely safe”. (That lady said it all.)
Believe me, there can be no better measure of what is happening here. These are the indicators of dignity and respect, delivered to those so often forced to survive at the margins of their own societies. Unless more of us succeed, as you seem to have, in delivering real dignity, real respect and the hope of really sustainable livelihoods, all the speeches and awards in the world will do little to protect folk arts and crafts. There are millions of artisans to whom their traditional calling remains a badge of indignity, neglect and shame. Their arts will die unless there is dignity, value and status for the makers. This is a fact even in my own country, where Mahatma Gandhi made hand-production central to our struggle for freedom from colonial oppression. India has experienced perhaps the world’s largest effort at integrating craft with national development. We have a lot to show for this. Yet today we still lack the most basic data for a sector that is second only to agriculture as a source of Indian livelihood. We have no marketing strategy for activities that ultimately depend on markets. Artisans on their way to fairs have to bribe their way past excise officials, and again to receive their dues. Look-alike Indian crafts are being dumped on world markets, including our own, and we have scarcely a clue what to do about this piracy. Planners today refer to our craft heritage of thousands of years as ‘sunset’ industries not really essential to super-power aspirations. It is a crisis situation. We should know, as this Market does, that our future demands professional marketing that can meet the challenges of a globalized economy. The foundation for such professionalism has to be empowered artisans who know where they come from, where they want to go, with knowledge and opportunity for how to get there. That power can certainly come from training and exposure of the kind the Market provides. Yet to take advantage of such opportunities artisans also need hope and self-esteem. They need dignity, respect and value that translate into a quality of life that is not just about survival. Santa Fe offers that hope to the artisans of the world.
There is something else that is special about this Market. All the things that I have noticed are happening through the initiative of Santa Fe’s museums. In most parts of the world, museums preserve and interpret collections. They seldom perform as catalysts of change. In Santa Fe, your museums provide spaces for dialogue, experimentation, innovation and problem-solving. This is hugely significant. A major challenge worldwide is division and confusion over whether folk expressions are about culture or about commerce. The two are seen as opposing forces. There is an ever-present fear that market forces will destroy the integrity of traditional arts and crafts, dumbing them down into trash sold to ignorant tourists. Yet artisans fear hunger and insecurity most of all. Here in Santa Fe, great Museums promote a great Market! The culture and commerce of folk art come together here in ways that demonstrate the synergy essential to survival – and to going beyond survival to flourish as quality that commands a price that in turn delivers an end to poverty. Because all this is being demonstrated within museums that are custodians of culture, ‘purists’ are likely to listen more carefully and ‘entrepreneurs’ to react more sensitively. That’s yet another huge Santa Fe strength toward future transformation.
The transformation we need is genuine recognition by every authority in the world that handcrafts offer a valid, tested alternative as ecologically sustainable industries, as engines for poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor, as livelihood opportunities made available where people are located, as a force for cultural and social confidence in an age beset with fears of identities crushed by mass conformity – and finally as recognition that humankind’s diversity is its best resource for understanding and peace. All these realities are demonstrated at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. They are demonstrated in ways that go beyond numbers, enriching those numbers with universal significance. So let me on behalf of all of us gathered here wish the Market a ‘Happy Fifth Birthday.’ Many happy returns, and a big ‘Thank You.’ We can learn from you. May the spirit of Santa Fe embrace and strengthen us all. That spirit is your grandest gift, the truest measure of your great endeavor.
Adapted from the keynote address delivered at St. John’s College One World Dinner on the occasion of the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, July 12, 2008